A federal court last week may have blocked a key part of Arizona's new immigration law, but Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "poster boy" for hard-line immigration enforcement, is hardly backing down. A lawyer for the Maricopa County lawman tells The Daily Beast that Arpaio will keep bucking the feds, by refusing to turn over documents they’re seeking as part of an investigation into allegations of racial profiling by his office.
In a letter sent Tuesday, the Justice Department threatened Arpaio with a lawsuit if his office didn’t hand over thousands of internal documents by August 17th. In response, Arpaio’s lawyer, Bob Driscoll, told The Daily Beast that the sheriff’s office intended not to comply with the Justice Department’s request, arguing that the department lacks the legal authority to compel the handover of the documents.
“They've had an 800 number up for a year, like they're plaintiffs lawyers in an asbestos case,” scoffed Arapaio’s lawyer, Bob Driscoll.
The Justice Department has been seeking the documents since last year, as part of an investigation into whether Arpaio’s office used illegal racial profiling tactics in its immigration enforcement efforts.
Driscoll—a former Bush Justice Department official who’s now with the powerhouse D.C. law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird and has in recent years worked on several high-profile legal causes—also charged that the probe is a politically motivated effort to curry favor with immigrants-rights groups. “They promised a lot to the immigrants rights groups,” he said of the Obama administration. “A bunch of members of Congress called for [the investigation] right after the election. And they got it."
Arpaio’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But the sheriff has leveled the same charge in the past. "I am not going to be intimidated by the politics and by the Justice Department," he pledged when news of the investigation first surfaced last year.
Arpaio also has denied that his office uses racial profiling tactics, saying that his deputies stop people only when they have probable cause to believe they've committed a crime. Earlier this year, his office announced that it had hired a nationally known immigration lawyer to train deputies in the enforcement of federal immigration law, including how to avoid racial profiling complaints."
Driscoll also accused Justice of drawing conclusions before looking at the facts. "The department's clearly taken a position,” he told The Daily Beast. “You have [Attorney General Eric] Holder out there running around saying he expects results.”
He added: "Obviously, Joe's a thorn in their side."
Driscoll further mocked the department for soliciting tips from the public on potential racial profiling by Arpaio’s deputies. “They've had an 800 number up for a year, like they're plaintiffs lawyers in an asbestos case,” he scoffed.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to respond to Driscoll’s comments. But in his letter to the sheriff’s office, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez argued that the department does have the authority to compel the documents, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Title VI bans discrimination by entities receiving federal money, and allows the department to examine the records of recipients of federal finds to ensure that those funds aren’t being used for illegal purposes.
Perez’s letter also noted that the department’s internal ethics unit investigated allegations made previously by Arpaio’s camp that the Justice probe was improper, and concluded that they were unfounded.
Since first being elected the Phoenix area’s top cop in 1993, Arpaio, 78, has promoted himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” and has used a string of publicity stunts to advertize his hard-line approach to law enforcement. He has forced inmates to wear pink underwear, and to march on chain gangs. He also has set up controversial “tent jails”—despite Phoenix’s 100 degree-plus heat—as an extension of the county jail.
But civil- and immigrants-rights groups have long complained about Arpaio’s aggressive immigration enforcement tactics. Between 2004 and 2007, Arpaio’s office reportedly was the target of 2700 lawsuits. In March 2009, the Justice Department began its own investigation into whether Arpaio’s deputies were using illegal racial profiling tactics—a probe that reportedly has since expanded to look into whether the sheriff used his post to conduct politically motivated arrests and investigations of his many critics.
Despite both the federal probe, and last week’s ruling by a federal judge blocking a key part of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, Arpaio has said he doesn’t plan to change his approach. On Monday, he took to MSNBC to boast that his tent jails have “plenty of room” to hold illegal immigrants arrested by his deputies.
Zachary Roth was until May a reporter for Talking Points Memo, and is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, and Salon, among other outlets.